We invited every train operator and conductor who ever worked with Oatley to his retirement party. None of the women wanted to attend the party and celebration. They declined the invitation, saying Oatley was creepy, leered at them, and made them feel uncomfortable. After Oatley’s death, though, one by one, the women came out of the closet, figuratively speaking. The revelations they made afterwards about Oatley seemed contradictory; they confused our image and impressions of the man. Their confessions made Oatley’s character ambiguous and even more difficult to comprehend and grieve, especially since, as we originally believed and conceived, he was gay. We to a man believed Oatley was homosexual, whatever that meant, in those times in Toronto, working as train engineers or conductors, slaves to the pension, on the commuter trains, in the subway, underground in the tunnels of the city transit system. And we wondered and speculated about his true identity. Churchland, who considered himself the best looking man on the subway system, and Toronto’s gift to women, constantly inquired about Oatley, when he wasn’t around, asking about his background before he became a train operator. Like his beer league hockey buddies, Churchland wondered where Oatley was born and raised, where he was educated, what high schools and colleges and universities he may have attended, since at times he seemed well educated. A few co-workers, red-necks, who loved their beer, rough contact sports, and Donald Trump-style politics, speculated about a nefarious background. They became fixated and obsessed with the idea he had an extensive criminal record. They believed he assumed a new identity, after he fled his prior life, since to them he looked Middle Eastern, Spanish, Italian, or Hispanic, sketchy, suspicious, like a potential terrorist. These co-workers, mainly Churchland, during intermissions at union meetings, work-related outings, and coffee breaks, questioned how such a person, dark, swarthy, could have a name like Oatley. Churchland quietly protested he never received a satisfactory answer.
A co-worker who refused to attend his retirement party was even confident he was a serial killer because he was a true crime aficionado. This co-worker expressed surprised at Oatley’s knowledge of serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jefferey Dahmer.
Meanwhile, Oatley, having turned into a recluse, had become estranged from his remaining family, few in number. He remained reserved and reticent, never talking about his personal background and history, the life he led before he became a train operator and conductor.
For his retirement party, we decided to take him to a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game. Some veteran co-workers remembered when he was an optimistic fan and baseball aficionado, when the Blue Jays were perennial fan favorites and playoff contenders. From Union Station, we stopped for drinks at the Loose Moose and then strolled to the Blue Jays baseball game at the Skydome, special because the stadium with the retractable roof completed construction and opened almost exactly when he first started working as a train operator.
Our attendance at the stadium also worked well at another level because it was during a critical playoff game. Afterwards, we hit a few bars on Front Street above the subway route that he travelled every day for the past twenty years or so. Oatley hadn’t attended a single Blue Jays baseball game in person since the major league baseball strike, which turned him off professional sports. Oatley had been a big fan of the Toronto Blue Jays as well as the Montreal Expos, but then the players of the Major League baseball teams went on strike, around the time the Montreal Expos seemed on the verge of an historic victory, causing him to lose his keen interest and enthusiasm for the sport. Anyway, the train gang watched a Blue Jays baseball game with Oatley, while Churchland kept calling him a short ugly fuck as he plied him with beers.
In the last inning, before the Yankees hit a home run, we unveiled our retirement gift to Oatley, tickets to a Maple Leafs’ game, a Raptors’ game, and a Blue Jays’ game. Now retired he would have no excuse not to attend these Toronto sports teams’ games. Relieved most of their female co-workers chose not to attend the retirement party, we started bar hopping again and escorted Oatley to gentlemen’s clubs and strip clubs. Oatley showed a genuine appreciation for the skills involved in exotic dancing. The exotic dancers performing, schmoozing, and lounging at the strip club admired him, nurtured an affection for him. They appreciated the cash he threw at them and his antics, the way he raved and cheered with enthusiasm for their erotic maneuvers and sensuous dancing. From whence did this sudden madness emerge. He ended up getting a free lap dance, including some intimacy from a younger, svelte dancer.
“We didn’t pay her for the blowjob, did we?”
“No, that wasn’t included,” Churchland said. “I guess she just felt sorry for him or was in a charitable mood.”
I was genuinely puzzled that Oatley had gotten physical with an exotic dancer, judging from the chirpy description of a dancer, with an hour glass figure, and the face of a makeup model, who plucked a strand of curly hair from the thick round lips of her mouth. At the same time, I realized Oatley, normally a killjoy, a buzzkill, wasn’t behaving in his usual fashion. Earlier, Oatley explained apologetically he had a sensitivity to pot and booze that precluded him from drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. Brock supposed Oatley hadn’t yet developed a tolerance for alcohol and recreational drugs. During his retirement party, though, Oatley indulged freely in alcohol, drinking his favorite alcoholic beverage, rum and cola, in enormous quantities, which he normally only imbibed during special social occasions. During hots dogs at the stadium, when we smelled pot in the stands, we started talking about marijuana. Oatley reminded us he had a sensitivity to the effects of marijuana. He was afraid, if he got stoned, he would behave irrationally. He even envisioned himself stepping in front of a subway train. We boomed with laughter, albeit a few uneasily.
A while ago, eschewing his worries about the extensive drug tests train operators were required to take, he indulged in his first dose of recreational marijuana, eating gummy bears infused with cannabis. But he experienced a green out. The distortion in his sensory perception and the severity of the synesthesia and sensory distortion, something he never before experienced, caused him to believe he was suffering a stroke. Since he was alone at home, trying to read a book, he had nobody to talk him down. He ended up calling the ambulance. Now, on the verge of retirement, still a relatively youthful man, I figured, Oatley seemed jovial and genuinely happy, although I wondered how he would survive with his mental health intact now that he possessed so much free time.
Oatley said he wanted to read through the unread books in his library in his favorite cafes and beaches around the city. He said he was particularly keen on visiting the clothing optional beach at Hanlan’s Point on the Toronto Islands, which he had never visited before. We never realized he was such an avid and devoted reader, who enjoyed browsing through second-hand and used bookstores and thrift shops and thereby built a large book collection.
When his niece arrived in the city for the funeral, she revealed her uncle earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a college diploma in computer science. We again asked why he operated a subway train all those years, instead of working somewhere as an executive or IT consultant. He’s a train buff, Melissa explained. When he wasn’t hired to be a freight train engineer for Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway in his hometown in Northwestern Ontario, he decided to apply for work as a subway train operator in the city where he attended college and university.
That weekend, we ended up bar hopping during the retirement party, where we started asking him probing questions and tried to delve deeper into his background, now that he was retired, now that he was a free man. Indeed, we started to learn more about her uncle’s hitherto confidential and private life. He managed his own retirement funds, but he ditched the opportunity to become a financial advisor to continue his work as a train operator. Apparently, the brokers at the investment firm where he parked his savings were impressed by his investment savvy. The managers tried to hire him as a financial advisor, but he wasn’t impressed by the fact he would be stressed, hand holding clients’ as their investment capital diminished during stock market corrections and bear markets. He emphasized how severe and deep and depressing stock market downturns could become, even though he found bear markets an adrenalin rush because they presented incredible investment opportunities. His enthusiasm and excitement for the stock market gave us a start.
In any event, the game we attended the Blue Jays lost, but the expedition to Skydome was deemed a success. Oatley thoroughly enjoyed the baseball and our antics as boisterous fans. Oatley drank beer—he couldn’t even remember the last time he consumed alcohol. He even managed to catch a foul ball that landed nearby, but he gave the baseball to another train operator, a gift for his daughter, a baseball fan and enthusiastic player. After the game, we joined the mass of spectators and fans streaming from the massive concrete dome with the retractable roof. Bantering, joking, we walked along Front Street and decided to take the northbound Yonge subway train from Union Station.
Oatley appeared in a jovial, celebratory mood, commenting how relieved he felt because he could sleep in late. He wouldn’t have to wake up early to operate the train for an entire shift, worry about shaving, fret over personal grooming, or wearing a clean pressed uniform. Anyway, that evening Oatley started to get restless and physical, another unusual turn in his behaviour. On the northbound subway platform in Union Station, Oatley started to wrestle with me, and I laughed and pushed him over to Maclean, who tussled with him and pushed him towards Churchland. Churchland, who considered himself the best looking man in Toronto, and the city transit agency’s gift to women, wasn’t in the mood for wrestling. Churchland was normally cold, unfriendly, and his sometimes downright nasty demeanour took an even meaner turn. Churchland pushed, shoved, and manhandled Oatley, who enjoyed and appreciated the physicality, probably only because he had consumed more than a few alcoholic beverages. Nobody had ever seen Oatley, who usually gently sipped and nursed a rum-and-Coke on such occasions, after he had consumed more than a few casual, social drinks. He always struck us as the kind of person who shunned intimate physical contact and emotional relationships. Finally, Churchland then turned nasty and pushed the inebriated Oatley.
“I don’t want to wrestle you, you queer motherfucker,” Churchland snapped angrily. Oatley laughed loudly, so loudly I was embarrassed at the volume and strength of his booming giggling voice. Churchland pushed and shoved Oatley on the subway platform. Unsteady on his feet, Oatley lost his footing and balance and fell backwards and landed on the subway train tracks. Then I felt overwhelmed by the shock over the danger posed by him falling flat on his back on the subway tracks. But Oatley laughed and shouted with hilarity, boisterously, as the train sped into the underground tunnels of Union Station, to the shock and fright of witnesses, commuters, baseball fans, including nearly a dozen subway train operators, out for a night on the town, out for a retirement party. I later remembered how Oatley reacted as if the push was a benign and hilarious practical joke: he laughed uproariously and hooted and shouted, “Got you back!”
It was hard not to forget the words uttered and shouted in the melee, both immediately before and immediately after Churchland pushed Oatley, eager to tousle on his retirement day, onto the subway train tracks. A hue and cry and gasping and shouts arose in alarm as a dozen subway train operators, a few soft and pudgy for lack of exercise, attempted to rescue Oatley. One shouted to pull and hoist him up off the tracks while another shouted, urging someone to immediately cut off the power while another protested it was too late to hit the emergency switches, located at the end of the subway platform, which would have severed electrical power to the train. Mindful of the danger and hazards, seeing the lights from the train north of the tunnel, nobody leapt down onto the tracks or reached down to him with a helping hand, to rescue him from the tracks and the fate and destiny of a commuter train speeding into the station.
Several days later, as we grieved his loss at his funeral, a few couldn’t help bitterly recalling the last words he presumably heard uttered by Churchland before he died, crushed by the subway train. Its onslaught he was presumably too drunk to bother to evade, unless—one of us theorized, he had deliberately met his own demise because he couldn’t face an empty vacuous life of retirement without beloved work and career. At least he died happy, we agreed, trying to console ourselves, as we learned more details of Oatley’s youth and past life.
We still could not understand how Oatley ended up operating a subway train when he was better qualified for intellectual work, at a skilled endeavour that paid better. Later, after his death, the women who said Oatley was creepy, leered at them, and made them feel uncomfortable recanted to a certain extent. They attended his funeral and the reception at the basement of the Catholic church afterwards. One by one, the women, young, intelligent, well-groomed, broke their uneasy silence and admitted they dated Oatley, slept with him, or spent time in extracurricular activities with him, engaged in activities like visiting the beach, hiking, biking, or camping. These women’s experiences, impressions, and opinions of Oatley seemed contradictory, or confused our image of the guy, made him even more difficult to comprehend and grieve, especially since, as we suspected, he was gay, when many of the train operators were old school and imbued with a certain degree of homophobia.
In any event, when Melissa first discovered her uncle had died, she grudgingly travelled to Toronto from northwestern Ontario, where she worked as a freelancer, a mental health counsellor, and a social worker at the regional hospital. Within a week, she realized she had become the legal owner of her uncle’s home. She happily decided to make her visit to Toronto a permanent move; after consulting with college friends, she believed she shouldn’t have difficulty finding work as a social worker or mental health counsellor in Toronto.
Oatley’s niece first met Churchland at the funeral, after another train operator who attended the retirement party indiscreetly revealed he was the person who pushed her uncle onto the subway train tracks. Somehow, they went for coffee together. The following day they went for drinks. The day afterwards they went for dinner. The following night, after Churchland, exercising his union prerogative in an irksome, fickle mood, put one train out of service and parked another train, they were sleeping together.
Churchland told me Melissa was the executor for the estate of Oatley, whom she referred to as Uncle Oats. Melissa was also the sole beneficiary of his estate, his only surviving relative, aside from Oatley’s mother, from whom he was estranged. (Melissa said after Oatley accused Melissa’s mother, Oatley’s sister, of sabotaging a relationship Oatley had with a young woman in his hometown, they never spoke to each other again.)
In any event, Melissa soon lined up work as a social worker at a hospital on Toronto’s hospital row along University Avenue near downtown. Impressed with his handsome looks and manly build and assertive, confident personality, she started openly dating Churchland, instead of sleeping with him on the sly. She relocated from Northern Ontario to the house on Ossington where her Uncle Oats lived. After several months, her uncle’s former co-worker, Churchland, moved in with her. I couldn’t help musing ironically she was sleeping with her uncle’s executioner, the man whose reckless actions led to her Uncle Oats’ death. One of the train operators, a transgender woman, insisted Churchland murdered Oatley and someone, or a union rep or official, should file a police report to that effect. If you knew Churchland you would understand why the LGBQT co-worker accused Churchland of murdering Uncle Oats. Churchland was a police officer until he was dismissed after he beat up some drug suspects so badly he broke their bones, and they required hospitalization. Still, he managed to get hired as a train operator by the city transit service.
Eventually Churchland got in touch with me, saying that he was doing house cleaning with Melissa at her dead uncle’s house. He asked if I wanted anything from his book and record collection. I didn’t understand and asked for clarification. He has this large personal library, Churchland said. Melissa wants to dump the books and music collection. Come by the house and check out his library, he said.
I was a bit mystified, and I loved reading, but I had abandoned my personal scholarship goals and academic aspirations after I graduated from university. Failing to find work in my chosen discipline and field, I made one of innumerable compromises in my life and became a subway train operator; the pay and benefits were attractive, the work purposeful. I took the bus and subway train to their house. I joined Oatley’s niece and Churchland for dinner.
After dinner and conversation, I looked over Oatley’s personal library and music collection; it was huge, larger than I expected. I thought it was peculiar there were several hardbound copies of a novel. When I turned the volume over, I discovered Oatley’s mugshot, portraying Oatley as a considerably younger man, his picture for the author’s bio, on the back cover of the dust jacket. Oatley didn’t write this novel, I asked, did he? His niece nodded and offered me macaroons, saying he had authored the book after he had been released from a psychiatric hospital. Oatley never mentioned that he had been a psychiatric patient but then again he never mentioned he had also written a novel, published under a pseudonym by a boutique publishing house and that the novel had sold several thousand copies. As I muted my surprise, I found numerous novels and nonfiction works that I liked. With his niece’s encouragement, I filled several boxes with hardcover books, trade paperbacks, pocketbooks, and compact disks.
Melissa saw how breathless and excited I had become with the collection of books and compact discs. “Do you have room?” Melissa asked. “Why don’t you just take the whole collection.”
“Yeah, trust me,” Churchland reassured me, “you weren’t the first person we asked. You’d be doing us a favour, if you took more books.”
I looked first at Oatley’s niece and then Churchland and then back at Melissa. I agreed to take the entire of Oatley’s book and music collection. I even offered to pay his niece money, but she insisted Oatley had left her with more money than she needed. She said the inheritance she received from her uncle put her at risk since the excess funds distracted her from her original goals and priorities: her career. She only wanted to resume her life in social work and mental health counselling. The house her uncle left her in the city of Toronto provided her with an ideal location to jump start her career.
Churchland and I packed and loaded the books into his pickup truck the following weekend. In the warm, sunny weather, he took off his wife beater shirt and helped me load and unload the boxes of books at my East York bungalow, where I had purchased bookshelves to organize and store the books, music, and compact disk collection.
Afterwards, as I closely perused the collection of print material, I discovered the collection of journals that Oatley kept. I was surprised at the orderly and rigorous quality of Oatley’s thinking. What shocked me was the relationships Oatley developed with a few train operators he had dated. Initially, I couldn’t understand why none of them wanted to attend his retirement party, until I realized that Oatley possessed no allegiance or loyalty to any single woman, that he might be considered a philanderer, a womanizer. Actually, a woman more experienced in such matters than me explained he sounded, in common parlance, like a swinger. “How can he be a swinger when he’s single?” “Swingers can be single.” “That doesn’t make sense,” I replied. “Then how does man whore sound?” “Oatley wasn’t a man whore.” “Ok, does libertine sound more socially acceptable to you?”
I shrugged. Despite his stodgy appearance and rigorous routine, and the seemingly orderly quality of his life and clockwork lifestyle, Oatley was in certain respects a free spirit, a free agent. He didn’t seem to believe in developing strong romantic attachments to one woman, although that might be explained by the fact he never appeared to have found a woman interested in establishing an enduring relationship. And he always tried to be open about what the morality squad might consider infidelity or looseness and immorality.
Apparently, several years ago, he considered returning to college to pursue a career in diagnostic imaging. As I read his journal entries, the nature of Oatley’s thinking on the topic filled me with yearning and ambition. Oatley’s journal entries inspired me to return to university. I decided to resume my studies at university in architecture, despite the job security of a train operator, despite the fact I cherished my work and job responsibilities. When I announced my decision to leave the transit service, my co-workers expressed surprise. My colleagues nurtured the belief I had become a lifer, a slave to my pension, which was true to a limited extent. I didn’t reveal, however, the unlikely source of my inspiration. When my co-workers gave me a going away party, a far muted personal affair compared to the big bash of a retirement party for a lifer, like Oatley, I made certain to avoid the strip clubs and the bar hopping via subway stations.
Within a few years, I succeeded in designing a new subway station for the city transit agency. Although the design for the green subway station, with solar panel roofs, a windmill powered by the jetstream and slipstream from the speeding trains, and even a geothermal energy system, didn’t win the competition, the design and plans won an honorable mention and a position with a large and prestigious architecture firm.
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from Sao Miguel, Azores. Having graduated from arts and science at Humber College and journalism at Centennial College, he more recently earned a Specialized Honors BA in English Literature from York University. His short fiction has been featured in community newspapers and radio and published in a variety of print and online journals and magazines, in the US, Canada, and internationally. His many passions include journalism, literature, economics, photography, writing, and coffee, and he enjoys hiking and cycling.